9/11 Volunteer Story: You can Make a Difference
In 2001, Kristina Paider was called to serve at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks.
She was not a first responder, a member of a relief organization, a branch of the military or a minister of faith. She was a volunteer– one of many who, compelled by a sense of familial love and compassion for those suffering in the wake of the disaster, pushed aside her personal life for a month and traveled to New York City to offer her hands and her heart to the recovery process.
“My first day, I could feel the grief. I could have totally lost it at that point. I could have just lain on the floor and wept for hours. But there was a voice inside me that said, ‘“If you want to cry, cry with them, not at them.‘”
Growing up in the Wisconsin countryside, Kristina’s warm, Belgian family was not unfamiliar with group project-based fun like spring cleaning for her Grandma. “We had a lot of fun working together for a purpose.”
So what inspired her to join the 9/11 relief work in late 2001? “I felt that same kind of familial calling – a sense of family, sisterhood, neighborliness – that I should be there. And that’s the most precise way to put it. I thought I had something to contribute.”
That she did. Surviving a personal trauma in her own life years earlier, she possessed the emotional strength necessary for serving at Ground Zero. “The Salvation Army briefed us well for the job,” she said, “we weren’t just serving food; we were also providing emotional support.”
She’ll never forget her first day on the job in December, 2001.
“The sidewalks were swallowed up with rubble and debris. Suddenly the sidewalk ended and we had to climb through the debris to get to the large relief tent that we could see up ahead. It was like rock climbing in a way. “
For a week, she and a friend worked at a Salvation Army “toy shop” – a makeshift store of toy donations made specifically for families of 9/11 victims. From there, she moved to The Salvation Army’s disaster services tent where she served food to emergency response teams, firefighters and other relief workers for the weeks to follow.
“The first time I served the firefighters and other relief workers, I really sensed their grief. When they would come in from outside, they were transitioning from trauma to interaction with people. They were beyond exhausted. The most I could (and was allowed to) do was smile and ask them if they wanted more potatoes. Yet amid the grief and sadness, the kindness and the humility of those we served just blew me away at every turn.”
Kristina was transferred to run the dessert station in the canteen, in her own words, a true calling of her Belgian roots! Dishing out sweets at the dessert station, she realized that she was serving more than sustenance. She was providing a moment’s peace, a smile, and sometimes a warm embrace as a thank you to the relief workers.
“The dessert station was serving Eli’s cheesecake for awhile and it was a big deal to the crews. You could see them light up the moment they were able to focus on something other than what was outside the tent. That was our goal – to do whatever we could to just give them a break.”
Now as a Los Angeles screenwriter, best-selling author and regular volunteer at her local homeless shelter, Kristina has had the unique opportunity to share her experience in a book called Unbreakable Spirit: Rising Above the Impossible – a collection of unbreakable spirits such as hers.
“This book celebrates the courage in all of us. You will find yourself in so many of these stories!”
In light of National Volunteer Week, Kristina wants readers to know: “You can make a difference. I simply served cheesecake to them. I sat next to them. You don’t have to be an expert at anything. Be confident in knowing that your presence alone can make a tremendous difference to someone suffering.”